Ngoma: Drumming and Dancing

Nyakyusa dancers near Tukuyu, Tanzania


I am in love with ngoma, traditional drums and dance. Tanzania has more than 120 tribes (the exact number varies, depending on who answers the question), and each has its own dances.

I bring this up now because Tisa and I recently stumbled into a Luguru dance and it was electrifying. We were returning in late afternoon from a visit to the family of Tisa’s good friend, Babu, in a small village a couple of hours’ drive from Morogoro. The family are members of the Luguru tribe, whose home area is around Morogoro. As a matter of fact, the name Morogoro is probably a European mispronunciation of Luguru.

Driving back to town with Babu and a female relative plus her two little ones, we saw people on foot streaming toward something, somewhere ahead of us. Then we heard drumming. Babu told us from the back seat that this was ngoma! And he asked if I’d be interested to see it. Yes! Of course! Stop the car!

We piled out into a crowd of maybe two hundred people and drumming so loud, I could barely hear Tisa’s instructions to me. I completely gave up on understanding Babu’s Swahili–I’m still struggling to understand spoken Swahili in the best of conditions, and he was so excited he was spitting the words out rapid-fire to match the drums.

The crowd pulsed around a small lot between two houses. Two separate dances, one very large and one smaller, played out. In each, a group of drummers occupied the center, and  two circles moved around them, both in the same direction. The outer circle was mostly men, and the inner mostly women, but the circles were not 100% sorted by gender. The men moved like the dancers in the video I’ve linked below. The women packed closely together and moved in a stylized shuffle/walk. The music was mesmerizing and some of the men were very skilled dancers. Some people, a small portion, seemed to be in a trance. The music and the dance together were compelling. The rhythm and repetition, the pulsing of it all, was visceral and satisfying. 

The bigger circle was wild. The smaller circle not as wild. Tisa slipped into the smaller circle and was dancing, and I was working myself up to dance, too, and then two dancers approached me, the obvious (white) stranger, and urged me into the circle. I made two circuits in the inner ring, with Tisa passing me on the outside. And then a friendly drunken man started trying to escort me, so I slipped back into the audience. 

Back at the big circle, part of the outer men’s ring was made up of a troupe of dancers with a banner and a name. About a dozen young men wearing white underwear tanks worked the moves beautifully. A woman of my own age (50-something-ish) in the inner circle gazed at them each time they lapped her with an undisguised emotion that I, as her age mate, recognized. But I was working not to show it on my own face!

We climbed a pile of construction sand for a better view. The very drunk young man carrying the troupe’s banner spotted the only mzungu (white foreigner) in the crowd and approached me with many lewd gestures. A lot of that was happening, so I laughed and hoped he’d pass on around the circle. No. He came closer to me, with his head at about my waist level and my feet planted in shifting sand with people packed around me. I made impotent gestures to block him or to shoo him away, but ended up with him planting his face into the big purse I had slung across my torso, which, thank God, was blocking my crotch area from direct contact. I didn’t have the balance or room to move away, and looked helplessly back at Tisa, standing behind me. He barked something at the guy and reached out and pushed him. The guy backed off, and several other middle-aged ladies nearby yelled at him, too. He stumbled around a bit, then rolled onto his back on the ground and made more and bigger lewd movements. Yikes! So that was a scary moment for me, but only a moment, and the people around me helped me out.

Babu told us this was a family celebration of an adolescent daughter coming of age. I believe it’s similar to a quinceanera, introducing the daughter to society as available for courtship and marriage.
I didn’t take any photos or video, because I was the only foreigner in the whole crowd, and because this was a community celebration, not a performance staged for an audience. I found a video on YouTube of a similar Luguru dance.  This dance video captures the elemental spirit of what we saw. The drums sounded the same, but we also had a flute adding a repetitive, simple melody line. And then add a few hundred people and many decibels of noise to this video, and you’ll have a feel for what we saw. It was freaking awesome!

I got my first glimpse of ngoma in Lindi, on the south coast, in 2013. Tisa and I were road tripping up and down Tanzania’s coast. We’d stopped in Lindi on our way to Mtwara to see ruins of the 14th-century Persian caliphate. It’s true! A Persian caliphate! I didn’t know about that either, until I came here and saw it.

We spent a day with two local young women, plus family members that joined up as we went along,  seeing the short list of sights in Lindi. At the end of the afternoon, sitting on the beach, we heard drumming, ngoma. We followed the sound, and slipped into a dance practice inside a fenced restaurant courtyard. Wow! It was amazing! This was the Makonde tribe, which many consider to have the best dances in Tanzania. The troupe greeted us and welcomed us to watch. We saw only two numbers, which left me wanting more. And then a few days later, we rolled into Mtwara just a few hours after the very last performance of a week-long annual ngoma competition. Which we have missed again for about three more years.

We stumbled into the next performance in 2015, on a road trip to the opposite corner of the country, in Mwanza at the Sukuma Museum. Sukuma is Tanzania’s largest tribe. A professional dance troupe was performing for a large group of upper class Tanzanian secondary school students touring the museum. It was a great show. But I have to say the impromptou dancing we’ve stumbled across since, without costumes, in dusty fields is better–more heartfelt, more emotion, less choreography, and the audience is right at the edge of the dance, rather than seated at a distance.

Here’s a dance from the museum show in which the women demonstrate their competitive household skills, and the men choose their bride.



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And another, without the obvious theme, but with a lot of impressive jumps by the young men .



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And the theme of this last dance was, “scare everybody with a big snake.” They brought out a wooden box, and teased us by leaving it with lid open in the center of the dance for a few minutes. Then they pulled out a huge python! The chief dancer let the python crawl toward the audience. The audience jumped up and ran! This was my opportunity to get some quick phone photos of the snake. The dancer then pulled the python by its tail back into the center of the ring. The audience came back and sat down. Repeat. Fun audience participation.

Why a python? I’m not sure, and I don’t find the answer from my brief stab at internet research. There is an element of competition in Sukuma dance–groups competing for audience attention, and the giant snake will certainly attract that attention! Also, the museum display of traditional houses featured stuffed pythons crawling through the rafters, so perhaps there’s more to the python than getting the audience’s attention.



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Coming back from Malawi a few months ago, we drove through the town of Tukuyu up in the mountains in southern Tanzania. We took a side trip out a dirt road to see a natural stone bridge called God’s Bridge. When we got there, it turns out you have to call the Forestry Department’s employee who then comes to meet you and give you a tour (unless you drove up the other road to his somewhat distant office first, which we didn’t).

When this forester arrived, he was willing to do the tour, but told us he was in a hurry because he’s the leader of a traditional dance group and they were scheduled to perform (right now!) at a grand opening celebration for a new market about a half hour drive away. He invited us to come.

We were in the home territory of Tisa’s tribe, the Nyakyusa, and he’d been telling me how cool their traditional dances are. And the natural bridge would be in the same place for another million years. So of course we went to see the dancing–and it was an amazing thing!

Out in a village way up a rough dirt road, and 200 people all gathered around in a circle watching the dancers in a dirt lot surrounded by banana trees. We were the only car, and when we got out with our host, several people came over to greet us. People were really excited to have two visitors, and one foreign, join them. The whole time we were there, people approached me to say how happy they were to see me there. I was going to leave the camera in the car, because I thought it might be intrusive, but our host brought it out for me, and people kept urging me to take pictures, so here are some.

This was the first dance, below. It opened with the troupe’s drummers playing, and the dancers walking around and through the ring, but also with many audience members taking a turn through the circle, too. Then two dancers with spears and with many neckties used as costume entertained us with comedic wild moves. Then the whole troupe moved in and danced.



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The white shorts and long-sleeved shirts in the dance, below, are traditional wear for Nyakyusa men’s dances. This was one of three troupes performing, and it was a competition. I felt loyal to the first troupe, who wore football jerseys from Tanzanian teams, because our Forestry Department host was with them. And I’m happy to report that, in spite of this troupe showing up in correct traditional costume, our group won.



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This dance, below, was our group again, and featured two young boys who are already great dancers.



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And on the way back to town, since we had the only car and it was a van, we had almost the whole dance group crammed in there! When the dancing broke up, and Tisa and I walked back to the car with our host, we got mobbed by about 50 people hoping to ride in the 10-passenger van. Tisa and I climbed inside and let our host sort it out. We even had two teenage boys riding inside the cargo compartment at the back, clinging to the spare tire. The first few bumps we hit, I said something along the lines of, “Be careful! You’re going to bounce those boys in the back!”

An old man sitting in the seat behind me said, in Nyakyusa translated by Tisa, “Eh, don’t worry. We have plenty of young men.”

And we have recently missed the annual ngoma competition in Mtwara again. And some other events around Mbeya. There’s always next year…and whatever events we stumble across in our wanderings around Tanzania.


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